Consider the following scenario: you are an impressionable, naïve high school girl, and you feel like you are always being a burden on everyone else. You are always watching other people take control of their own lives, but never do anything about your own. You feel useless on a daily basis. But one day, you rescue a cute little...cat...thing from a tragic end, and it senses potential in you to be a Puella Magi and defend the town you love. Once you become a Puella Magi, it will grant one wish of your choosing. All it asks of you in return is a contract. Would you do it?
If this were any other magical girl show, the obvious answer would be “of course”. After all, you would get new powers, unbelievable strength, and a huge boost in self-esteem and friendship overall. Plus, you and the cat thing would form a symbiotic partnership, boosting both its powers and yours, making you able to protect the universe.
They look so happy!
Unfortunately, this is Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which means that sealing that contract will condemn you to eternal hell.
I suppose it goes without saying, but rather than conforming to the tropes of most shows of its breed, Puella Magi Madoka Magica goes out of its way to be a bit of a troublemaker. Put simply, while all of the good little mahou shoujo series are graduating from middle school, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is the rebellious upstart that shoots heroin in the back of an abandoned 7-11 bathroom stall at 2:00 in the morning. Much like how Evangelion was a deconstruction of mech series and the more recent Katanagatari was a deconstruction of shounen battle-fests, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a deconstruction of the magical girl, and a damn fine one at that.
Madoka does her best Shinji impersonation.
Oh sure, at a first glance the series LOOKS like it might be something you've heard of before. If you have seen Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha (which director Akiyuki Shinbo also worked on) the plot may seem very familiar—in fact, if you replace “Jewel Seeds” with “Grief Seeds” then you have almost exactly the same plotline. For the first two episodes. After that, the direction the story takes is completely unprecedented as the characters delve into a inescapable world of unimaginably horrific witch hunts, each of which not only test the girls' physical prowess, but their mental stability as well. Really, as the series goes on, the underlying question is not “what would your wish be”, it's “how far until the cutie breaks?” You know at least that you are not watching a typical mahou shoujo series when the main character almost gets sucked into a suicide pact.
But if you look at the people responsible for this madness, it is hard to imagine anything else coming to pass. The writer, Urobuchi Gen, has made a name for himself writing both light and visual novels that have absolutely no trace of happiness. Saya no Uta, his most popular visual novel, is one of these, which I myself particularly enjoyed. He is also known for the series Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom and the Fate/zero light novel.
The director, Akiyuki Shinbo, is notorious for making any background scene an architect's wet dream (or in the case of this series, a wet nightmare). The visuals for the witches' realm look like something you would see out of Salvador Dali's home movies, and the witches themselves are shapeless, formless blobs devoid of all humanity that get introduced in a grandiose Zelda-esque manner. All this is of course compounded by Kalafina's haunting orchestral soundtrack, which is a strong contender for soundtrack of the year for me.
Unfortunately, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is one of those shows that is so rife with spoiler content that by discussing any more about the series on this page I would violate several Internet Spoiler Codes, and probably make a ton of people pissed off in the process. But take it from me when I say that this show is one of the most memorable, most emotional, most macabre, and most incredibly fascinating series to come out in recent memory, and that not checking it out, especially due to any biases you may have over magical girl anime, is an egregious oversight. If you consider yourself an anime fan at all, you owe it to yourself. Not everyone will be a fan of the first few episodes, but when this series kicks into high gear, you won't be able to stop. Will you make that contract with Kyubey? The fate of the world rests on your decision.
NOTE: The next page is an in-depth discussion of my analysis of the series. It is very, very spoiler-heavy and is intended for audiences who have already seen the series. After you watch it, feel free to continue on.